Starring Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker. Written and directed by Craig Zobel. 14A. 90 min. Opens Aug. 10.
A film that has garnered a divisive, sometimes angry response since its premiere at Sundance, Compliance arrives with a daunting reputation: Consider it the feel-very-bad movie of the summer. Yet with his sophomore feature, writer-director Craig Zobel has ambitions beyond provoking feelings of dread and distress even in viewers who pride themselves on their endurance of the rough stuff.
As absurd as the action in Compliance may sometimes seem, Zobel’s film is based closely on an incident that took place in a McDonald’s in Kentucky in 2004 and was one of dozens of similar events across the U.S. On a busy Friday night at a fast-food chicken restaurant, manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a man who says he is a policeman. “Officer Daniels” (Pat Healy) tells her that one of her employees has been accused by a customer of a theft. The alleged culprit is identified as Becky (Dreama Walker), a cheerful young woman who is understandably baffled. After being taken to a back room, she is subjected to an escalating series of humiliations, all of which are authorized by the officer as part of his “investigation” by proxy.
One of the story’s many ironies is that the man on the phone—who is eventually shown to be nowhere near the restaurant and anything but a cop—is no master manipulator but someone who makes many slip-ups. Yet such is his finesse with a variety of tactics—from reassurance and flattery to badgering and bullying—his control over the employees remains chillingly plausible.
Though Zobel might’ve been content to simply present a true-life tale of degradation—similar to the kind preferred by other students of Michael Haneke’s cruelest provocations—Compliance’s finale instills an awareness of the systems of control at work far beyond this fictional fast-food joint. Zobel has created a cunning yet fundamentally empathetic case study on the malleability of the human will, and the resulting psychological and ethical vulnerabilities that affect situations far less bizarre than the one presented here. What we’re left with is the terrifying suggestion of how easy it is for any of us to create our own private Abu Ghraib.